One of life's ironies is that our parents sometimes die before we know the right questions to ask them.
How did they handle hardship? What was their health history? What insights did they develop about human nature?
Carl Heinemann, a local CPA, knew that his father, Herman Heinemann, was a hard-working family man -- an EPB mapmaker by profession who loved photography, woodworking and Austrian cooking.
Carl also knew that his dad, who died in 1973, served stateside during World War II as a technical sergeant in the U.S. Army, and that he spent part of the war in a Missouri Army hospital in 1943 due to an unspecified medical condition. The condition was severe enough, apparently, that Herman wasn't even allowed out to attend his mother's funeral.
Unknown to Carl until recently was an episode in which his father was able to assist in the war effort from that very hospital bed.
The chain of events was uncovered as Carl Heinemann rummaged through family artifacts while cleaning his basement. Hidden away in packing crates he found, among other things, a hardbound guide to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, souvenirs from the 1940 New York World's Fair and a stack of letters addressed to Sgt. Herman Heinemann at the Station Hospital at Camp Crowder, Mo. The letters, mostly handwritten missives bearing three-cent stamps, were thank-you notes from the families of America soldiers who had been captured by the Japanese and Germans and held as prisoners of war.
Heinemann was soon able to piece together the origin of the letters. His father had a shortwave radio at his bedside on which he would listen to Japanese broadcasts. It was the custom in Japan to have American POWs broadcast their names, ranks, serial numbers and short messages to their families. Sgt. Heinemann would listen to the faint broadcasts and take careful notes. Then he would send news of the POWs to their families here on the home front.
For some families, it was the first notice that their husbands, fathers or brothers were still alive. For others, the letters were among many they received from across the nation from other shortwave radio operators eager to share good news.
Here are a few lines from letters sent to Sgt. Heinemann in 1943:
• "Received your letter telling us about our son, James. We want to thank you for giving us the information that he is safe. We have not received a letter from him as yet, but are looking for one to come at any time now." -- R.L. Gibson, Des Moines, Iowa.
• "We want to thank you for forwarding the message that you received by shortwave from Japan including our son Paul's message to us. I would give most anything I own just to hear his voice once again." -- Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Riddle, Phillipsburg, N.J.
• "Thank you for sending me the message from my husband which came over the shortwave from Japan on November 18. It was the only word my daughter and I have had from him, except for a prisoner of war card from this past summer. I am enclosing some stamps. Perhaps they will help make it possible for you to notify others as you did us." -- Mrs. Harvey Lee Massingill, Oakland, Calif.
The letters recall a time when Americans were bound together by wartime suffering, an era when the handwritten words of others could lift hearts crushed with worry over missing loved ones who had been swallowed by the fog of war.
"You wonder, if he had felt better, would he have (later) tried to meet these people?" Carl Heinemann asks of his father. "He was a gentle-hearted man."
This is a good reminder that, even in the digital age, when the accumulated knowledge of mankind seems at our fingertips, family artifacts should be saved and savored.
Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.